The alternative Christmas album is becoming de rigour for a variety of indie and folk artists so here is Tucson duo Calexico offering up a seasonal album of the Tex-Mex variety. Less a Christmas album and more an end of year celebration (and who isn’t celebrating the end of this year?), Seasonal Shift showcases Joey Burns and John Convertino’s distinctive Latin sound and expert song craft in an album that rises above sheer novelty, thanks to the incorporation of Latin American styles and expertly chosen collaborations with a variety of musicians and vocalists.
Billed by the band as ‘more of a cross cultural seasonal celebration’, Seasonal Shift encompasses that melding of reflective melancholy and celebration which comes with this time of year.
Opening track Hear the Bells is the most festive of the original songs here and is an anthemic Christmas pop tune with soaring strings, pedal steel guitar and the warmth of Calexico’s customary brass which come together with an uplifting sense of renewal. Mi Burrito Sabanero – a Venezuelan classic in the vein of ‘Little Donkey’ – opens with customary sleigh bells which give way to a slice of classic Calexico vibrancy, enhanced by the charming vocals of Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno.
The title track is a low-key country-tinged treat of festive melodrama, with drunken parents, flammable Christmas trees and a lack of cash, while Nature’s Domain is a darker exploration of how we take stock at the end of the year. The instrumental Glory’s Hope has a lowdown desert groove replacing sleigh-bells with the glockenspiel to create an eerie suggestion of Christmas set in a Sergio Leone movie. Think cacti rather than Christmas trees. The mood lightens with the elegant fado-inspired Tanta Tristeza featuring Gisela João.
Peace of Mind gets the country folk treatment, perfect for a song about the joys of staying at home, which manages to be both lovely and genuine, at a time when staying at home is about all that we can do. Sonoran Snoball is a highlight that comes from leftfield, with its breezily exuberant electronic beats and unexpected rap interludes. This energetic final track urges the listener to “crank the music higher” and it’s very hard to resist.
There are two covers on the album, neither of which are pushing any boundaries, but work really well with Joey Burns’ vocals and Calexico’s signature sound. Tom Petty’s rather obscure Christmas number ‘Christmas All Over Again’ is a rollicking festive duet with Nick Urata from DeVotchka that benefits greatly from thumping percussion and a spirited brass section. At first listen, Calexico’s version of the ubiquitous Happy Xmas (War is Over) might seem like an underwhelming affair, but despite being a fairly standard rendition, it perfectly suits Burns’ vulnerable vocals while the pedal steel and muted brass combine to capture the inherent warmth and heart that has been lost in the original by forced repeated listening.
The album closes in true Phil Spector Christmas Album style with a reprise of Mi Burrito Sabanero where the albums’ contributors send freewheeling thanks and best wishes from their respective quarantined spots around the world, including Portugal, LA and Spain.
Seasonal Shift is the perfect antidote to all those overly familiar Christmas songs that get stuck in your head at this time of year. It is a quintessential Calexico album, showcasing their strength in instrumentation and in creating engaging and big-hearted music with a keen sense of cinematic grandeur and eclecticism perfect for this transitional time of year.